Paul Meissner has some sage advice on how to automate a small accountancy firm.
For the past 10 years I have run a 100% cloud-based accounting firm. Technology has helped define the success of my firm. It’s been an integral part of everything from internal tasks to external lodgements. Software has helped me have deeper connections with my clients globally, liberated me from a fixed office server and has contributed to amazing efficiency and profitability.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. I’ve been sold software that didn’t work or I didn’t need, bought great software I didn’t commit to and a lot in between. I have learned a lot.
My greatest realisation is that automation starts with the process not the product. Processes, like the firm’s themselves, are many and varied and often mould to the existing systems and staff of the firm. I strongly believe that the small firm of the future will have the best processes rather than just use the best or most software.
Software for small firms is a different game today than it was some years ago. I’ve seen an explosion in the number and variety of software companies that are here to ‘revolutionise the way firms run’. It can be very hard to cut through the marketing ‘noise’ and work out what can help your firm.
Here’s the five-step automation process for small firms that has served me well:
- Map your processes
You can’t automate what you don’t really understand. Process mapping might sound like a dark art, but it’s actually quite simple.
Start with one (simple) process and list every step, every touch point, every click that you need to do to complete a process in your firm. Don’t get bogged down in the details or variables of each step. This isn’t an operations manual to follow, it’s a map of the process flow.
Examples of small processes to start with are calendar bookings, task management or client work delivery. From there you can progress to larger processes. Process mapping is a team sport, those that run the process should be the loudest voice, not just the boss dictating things.
Team consultation can make staff feel valued and engaged. More importantly for firm owners, you might discover just how inefficient or non-existent the processes in your firm are.
- Outcome focus
Understand the outcomes that are important to the process rather than the steps required. I try to put the greatest focus on the outcome and achieving it in the most efficient way. For me there are absolute values (client experience, quality, etc) but apart from that we just look at doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Improve the process
Now that you can see each step in the process, you should see some glaring inefficiencies (print and sign, binding and mailout, etc). Removing steps in the process is something that has created more efficiency for me than buying new software. A step should be essential to the outcome or values to stay.
Be brave in removing steps. The most inefficient practice I still see is the physical paper binding, delivery and signing of financials and tax returns. For me the timeliness and efficiency of electronic delivery and signing coupled with the personal touch of a phone call, online client meeting delivers far more client value and internal efficiency.
- Maximise current systems
Chances are you have software in your firm that you aren’t using to the full potential. Whether it’s new features you’ve missed or a better way to use the current features, making your current systems work better for your streamlined processes is real bang for buck. If required, get training.
- Test the software
Trial any prospective software head to head against your current process to prove any efficiency gain. From experience, what the system actually does and what the software’s marketing people tell you it does can vastly differ.
One of the greatest challenges I have faced with new software is that the efficiency promised takes so much background set up, manipulation or customisation that it negates the efficiency. Factor in to the cost/benefit analysis the software cost, implementation cost and training.
At the end of the day the software needs to suit your firm, your process and the needs of your clients. Small firms especially need to filter out the growing marketing noise and focus on your firm’s needs. I am a fan of software, but it must be the right software for your firm.
• Paul Meissner is the founder of Freedom Mentoring and a director of the 5ways Group